- Lincoln Mitchell
The Aaron Judge Conundrum
by Lincoln Mitchell
October 28, 2022
The biggest and most immediate decision facing the Yankees is whether or not to keep Aaron Judge. On one level, it is a pretty easy call. Judge is one of the very best players in the game, the face of the franchise and has a reputation for being an excellent teammate and clubhouse presence. That all suggests the Yankees should do whatever they can to hold on to Judge, but it won’t be cheap. Judge has indicated that he is interested in entertaining offers from other teams, while the San Francisco Giants, the other team of which I have been a fan for close to half a century, are clearly willing to spend a to land Judge. My sense is that by the time the bidding for Judge ends, he will sign a contract of roughly 10 years for a total of around $380 million, possibly more. That is a lot of money, but Judge is a sui generis player and losing him would be devastating to the Yankees and their fans.
Unfortunately, there is more to it than that. Those arguments for keeping Judge are decisions of the heart, but it seems we should at least hear a more analytical side of the question as well. There is no question that Aaron Judge is an extraordinary player who has just had one of the greatest seasons in baseball history, but it is even more certain that he will turn 31 shortly after the 2023 season starts. Is possible that Judge will be one of the very few players who can continue to have elite seasons well into his late 30s, but there is no particular reason to believe he will have such an unusual career trajectory. Excluding players like Barry Bonds, Many Ramirez or David Ortiz who were able to hit well into their late 30s because of their, shall we say, unusual workout regimens, most recent great players had very few productive years after their early 30s.
The most hopeful example for Judge might be Jim Thome who was one of the top hitters in the game until he was 40. On the other hand, Miguel Cabrera’s last great year was when he was 33. Albert Pujols had a fun renaissance this year, but before that was not a great hitter after he turned 34. Ken Griffey Jr. was more or less finished by age 35. Judge might be an outlier and continue to be a top slugger for another decade, but $380 million is a lot to bet on that.
In general free agent contracts are backloaded with teams paying too much for the decline phase of a player’s career so they can secure that player’s best years. The problem for Judge is that he has fewer of his best years remaining because, for a player of his caliber, he is hitting free agency at a relatively older age. Given this, it might be helpful to lay out the best case scenario for Judge’s career trajectory and see if it works for the Yankees. Again, this is a best case scenario. It is unrealistic, but meant to be illustrative. Imagine that over the next three years, Judge hits somewhere between his career average and his extraordinary 2022 season. In rough numbers, that would mean a 190 OPS+, and about nine WAR every year from 2023-2025. If he stayed healthy and hit like that, Judge would be a strong MVP candidate each year while continuing to build a legitimate Hall of Fame candidacy.
Let’s say that for years four through seven of the ten year contract, again I am being extremely optimistic here, Judge drops to being an OPS+ of 150 and, partially due to injury is a 5-7 WAR player every year. Then, for the final three years of the contract, Judge has an OPS of 130 and a combined ten WAR. If we knew Judge would put up those numbers, then it would be foolish for the Yankees not to sign him. A player that good is worth top dollar even if he slows down a little bit in his late 30s. However, no rational baseball person would enter these negotiations based on these unrealistic projections.
A more realistic, but still extremely optimistic scenario is that for the first three years of the contract, Judge is the seven WAR per year and OPS+ 170 player he has been for most of his career, falling off to five WAR per year and an OPS+ of 135 for the middle years and 2 WAR 120 OPS+ player for the final three years of a hypothetical ten year contract. That is still a very good player and a very hopeful scenario. It is likely that over the next ten years, Judge will not put up numbers quite that good, but let’s work off this realistic but optimistic scenario.
The question this raises is whether during the first three years of the Judge contract, when according the two optimistic scenarios, Judge is still in his prime, the Yankees can build enough around him to win a championship. If the answer is yes, then it worth signing him, but if not, the logic of signing Judge, rather than using that money say three years from now when the Yankees, led by say Anthony Volpe and Jason Dominguez, are one or two good player short of a championship caliber team, is unclear.
The answer to how the Yankees should handle this conundrum is essentially it depends on what else the Yankees do. Ironically, signing Judge to a big contract only makes baseball sense if the Yankees also add another star or player or two. Just keeping Judge, who like Anthony Rizzo-if they keep him-, Gerrit Cole, Giancarlo Stanton and most of the other key Yankees is getting older and will likely have a worse year in 2023 then in 2022, will not make the Yankees likely to improve next year or the year after. Keeping Judge and Rizzo while adding a top pitcher like Carlos Rodon or Jacob deGrom and probably another left-handed hitter, and would give the Yankees a real shot at winning the World Series. However, signing Judge and making no other moves all but ensures that none of the few remaining years of Judge’s prime will end with the Yankees pouring Champagne on each other after the World Series.
In addition to the positive scenario, there is also the very real possibility, perhaps the most likely, that Judge has four or so years of playing 120-140 games-his injury history cannot be entirely overlooked-while having 5-6 WAR per season and an OPS+ of 150 or so. That would still make him an elite slugger, but not a perennial MVP candidate. Those four years could be followed by a six year decline where Judge becomes a good hitting DH, that is not quite an All-Star and is often injured. That player, who the Yankees are very likely to get if they resign Judge is not worth the money.
It is impossible to know how Judge will play over the next ten years, but the bottom line is that the only way signing Judge makes sense is if the Yankees are willing to go all in now, and if Judge stays healthy and hits when he is 31-34 years old as well as he did when he was 27-30. However, there is one other strategy the Yankees might pursue.
Before this season, Judge famously bet on himself rejecting a lowball offer of essentially $213 million for seven years. Maybe the Yankees can persuade Judge to bet on himself again, not by making a lowball offer, but by offering Judge the highest annual salary in the history of American team sports. The Yankees could offer Judge a four year deal worth $240 million. That would pay him well for what might be left of his prime, while giving him the opportunity to get another big payday four years down the road. In that scenario, the Yankees would not have to worry about an aging DH in 2027 or so. Again, this only makes sense if the Yankees are willing to pick up other star players to bolster an aging Judge led team in 2023 and 2024.
The emotional argument for Judge is powerful and should not be overlooked. He is the best and most beloved player on a team that seeks to, at the very least, contend and play into October every year. Without Judge, the Yankees will struggle to do that for the next few years. The problem is even with Judge they are an aging team whose top prospects are unlikely to be impact players before 2024 at the earliest. The bottom line is that Judge will be very expensive, but only worth it if the team is willing to go all in this off-season and build a team that can get past Houston in the playoffs; and Judge alone cannot do that.